In a conversation with Newsweek Middle East, Emirati filmmaker, director and producer, Nahla Al Fahad, is contemplative. A packed schedule and constant travelling have not fazed Fahad, who is now known for her Oscar-shortlisted hijab documentary, The Tainted Veil.
Fahad had known from an early age that she wanted to be part of the film industry, but her father had dissuaded her because “he thought there will not be any vacancies for women,” and because Emirati culture remains deeply conservative in many respects. The field has since become more accessible for women, she believes. “I chose what I wanted to study and what I have always wanted to be.” Now, she says, her family is hugely supportive. She created her own production house, Beyond Studios, in 2010, after studying filmmaking at Brighton University in the U.K.
Fahad, who collaborated with Syrian director Mazen Khayrat and American documentary filmmaker Ovidio Salazar on The Tainted Veil, was forced to overcome sexist hurdles. “This is one of the main things people do. [They] underestimate a woman’s ability in this field of directing and producing.” It was a challenge to gain the trust of producers, who were often wary of working with her because of her lack of experience. She was able to overcome their doubts “by coming up with new ideas and delivering before deadline. These were really the key factors that got producers excited to work with me,” Fahad tells Newsweek Middle East.
The turning point in her career came in the form of music videos. Fahad has worked with some of the most prominent pan-Arab celebrities such as Rashed Al Majed, Fayez Al Saeed, and Diana Haddad, among others. “I challenged myself. Either I do things the way I want to, or I quit.”
This determination certainly worked for Fahad, whose portfolio now features more than 10 years of work including the immensely popular Kuwait-based TV series Harb Al Quloob (War of Hearts). Her critically-acclaimed documentary was shortlisted for the best documentary feature at the 88th Academy Awards. The film explores the history of the Muslim head scarf and its intersection with scholars, academics and ordinary Muslim women. It is a topic that has been exhausted. Elsewhere, Fahad has said that the head scarf has been assigned too much weight: “It’s just a piece of cloth.”
But the documentary does, she believes, add to the debate. “We are introducing the history and philosophy of the head-covering through the stories of real people who experienced the hijab, either by wearing it or by taking it off. It’s not scripted.” The political environment of the past few years has changed the idea of the hijab, she says. “It is an idea we want to deliver. If you see a woman wearing a hijab, don’t think of her as your enemy.” There is no doubt that the head scarf has been widely politicized and has come under intense scrutiny, particularly following a wave of terror attacks around the world by the militant group Daesh.
Whether forced to wear the hijab under state-imposed laws or remove it, the issue remains a relevant struggle as far as Arab societies and governments continue to police women’s bodies. The filmmaker herself dons the hijab wherever she goes and says she has never encountered any discrimination. In fact, Fahad says she finds people are pleasantly surprised to see a veiled Arab woman behind the camera. If anything, Fahad says they encourage her further.
“The recent [wave of bigotry] is caused by politics and something ‘normal people are not’ a part of.” Filming for The Tainted Veil took place in nine different countries: the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France. Norway, UAE, Denmark, Turkey, Morocco, Egypt and Syria. “What we found in these countries,” Fahad says, “is that people respect us as we are.”
Social issues serve as an inspiration behind most of her work. She has finished filming her second TV series and is reading scripts for more projects. She is working on her first feature film Maryam—a social family drama that narrates the story of a young girl’s reconciliation with her grandfather, and hopes to complete it in time for international film festivals by early 2017. She collaborated with Sky News Arabia to produce a film on the Saudi-led coalition war in Yemen. The film, titled Asifat Al Hazm, (Operation Decisive Storm) played on all local channels in the UAE. It focuses on the UAE’s role in the coalition, its reasons for participating and the importance of stopping the war in general. “Nobody likes war. I’m against it and I feel so sorry for the people [in Yemen],” Fahad says.
When The Tainted Veil was shortlisted for an Oscar, it was a significant moment in the young country’s cinematic history, and a nod to the emergence of serious Arab cinema. Initiatives such as the Dubai International Film Festival mean that domestic filmmakers are being exposed to international films, raising the production bar. Fahad says the industry needs to show improvement in script-writing, building stories and filming.
However, a hint of frustration is clear as Fahad says that the UAE has the skills and ability to produce four or five films a year. “What I really care about is UAE cinema. I really would like to see more Emirati films in the cinema, not only one during the whole year. We are able to do it, we have everything. We just need people to believe in us and have confidence that InshAllah, (God-willing), we will be able to produce a high standard film that competes with international ones. This is what I’m looking for.”
She says the UAE government have been “very supportive,” not only by granting her permits to film in various locations but also by offering her major projects and office space. Offering advice to aspiring filmmakers, Fahad encourages people to relentlessly pursue their passion. “When you love you work, your work loves you back.”